Do you like movies about mental illness?
Why are we so fascinated with movies in which the protagonist is suffering from some sort of mental disorder? Is it because we feel an affinity with the main character? Or that the narrative can take us into the deepest realms of the human psyche? Or is it simply that having a mental disorder allows the storyteller to provide a twist we never saw coming?
Whatever it is that we find so seductive and beguiling, film-makers have begun to use mental disorders in a more intriguing way. Not merely showing them as caricatures of the illness, but in a way that allows us to sympathize and understand the disorder.
After much discussion, we have come up with our favorite thought-provoking movies about mental illness:
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST – 1975
Directed by Milos Forman, starring Jack Nicholson.
Nicolson plays Mac, a recidivist criminal, who has been committed to a mental institution. Although Mac does not appear to be suffering from any type of mental illness, his co-inhabitants at the institution have a range of disorders.
Mac thinks that he has avoided a sentence of hard labor by agreeing to stay at the institution but he constantly comes up against the authority figures in the psychiatric institution, in particular, Nurse Ratched.
Mac tries to escape but is thwarted and is lobotomized after he’s knocked out when it is discovered that he has strangled Nurse Ratched. The film explores the terrible treatment of mental patients in the sixties.
FATAL ATTRACTION – 1987
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
Directed by Adrian Lyne, starring Michael Douglas.
Douglas plays Dan, a married man, alongside Glenn Close who plays Alex Forrest. The two have a steamy affair that lasts for one weekend. For Dan, the weekend was only meant to be a quick affair, and now he wants to cut off all contact with Alex.
She, however, thought it was the start of something more meaningful. Someone suffering from BPD would experience depression, self-harming, aggression, and ultimately – if their needs are not met, violence.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film, in which Alex puts Dan’s daughter’s rabbit in a stewing pot on the hob, has led to the term ‘bunny-boiler’ which is now part of our everyday language.
JACOB’S LADDER – 1990
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Directed by Adrian Lyne, starring Tim Robbins.
Robbins plays a Vietnam War veteran called Jacob. The viewer goes on Jacob’s journey of frightening flashbacks and intense hallucinations after his return from the war. As a viewer, we experience the confusion, just as Jacob does, when we lurch from one scenario to another, without pause or explanation.
People with PTSD endure terrifying flashbacks that appear real, disturbing thoughts and dreams and can often act out scenarios that lead to tragic events. Despite the end of the story having a twist, the scenes of PTSD are shockingly real.
FIGHT CLUB – 1999
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Directed by David Fincher, starring Edward Norton.
Norton plays the narrator of the film alongside Brad Pitt as Tyler. At the start of the film, Norton meets Tyler on a plane and forms a friendship with him. Tyler seemingly encourages Norton to step out of his unhappy life and, through the Fight Club, discovers his power and masculinity.
We find out at the end of the film that Norton has unconsciously created Tyler out of his own unhappiness to compensate for his deeply unhappy life.
A BEAUTIFUL MIND – 2001
Directed by Ron Howard, starring Russell Crowe.
Crowe plays the famed mathematician John Nash. Nash slowly developed paranoid schizophrenia and in the film, we watch as this very clever, sweet, and charming, but sometimes awkward man succumbs to this devastating illness.
His relationships start to crumble around him as the illness starts to control him. The film focuses on both Nash coming to terms with his illness and his friends and family as he learns to live with his hallucinations as well as he can.
THE MACHINIST – 2004
Directed by Brad Anderson, starring Christian Bale.
Bale plays Trevor, an extremely emaciated machinist who is suffering from chronic insomnia. As the film progresses, Trevor’s insomnia makes him hallucinate, which causes a co-worker to become ensnared in some machinery and lose his arm.
Although the co-worker does not blame Trevor, his other colleagues do so and alienate him. Trevor further descends into mental illness and hallucinates even more.
At the end of the film, we are shown a flashback where Trevor accidentally killed a young boy while he was driving. We have become so used to his emaciated state that it is a shock to see him well and healthy.
We last see Trevor walking into a police station to admit to the hit and run. It is only when he can accept what he has done that he is able to sleep.
SHUTTER ISLAND – 2010
Directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
DiCaprio plays U.S. Marshal Teddy who is searching for a prisoner recently disappeared on the psychiatric institution (Shutter Island). We follow Teddy’s search until the twist, where it becomes clear that he is not a U.S. Marshall, but a man called Andrew Laeddis, who murdered his wife after she drowned their children.
He experienced a total mental breakdown and would not admit he had killed her, so the doctors allowed him to play out the role as therapy in order to come to terms with what he had done. At the end of the film, Andrew still believes he is a Marshall and is subsequently lobotomized.
BLACK SWAN – 2010
Severe Eating Disorder
Directed by Darren Aronofsky, starring Natalie Portman.
Portman plays professional ballerina Nina Sayers. This film showcases the enormous pressure Nina is under to strive for perfection in the ballet world. In order to achieve this, she succumbs to an eating disorder, and chronic hallucinations which eventually lead her to kill her understudy and ultimately commit suicide on stage.
If you know some more great movies about mental illness, we would like you to share them with us in the comments!
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